Women of the Civil War: Elizabeth Blair Lee


While Robert E. Lee is well-known for his service during the Civil War, few people would recognize the name of his third cousin, Samuel Phillips Lee. The latter member of the Lee clan married the daughter of Francis Preston Blair, a prominent member of Washington, D.C., political circles, and a mover and shaker in the Republican Party.

Elizabeth Blair had to convince her reluctant father to allow her to marry a man who did not have the family credentials or future prospects he thought suitable for his only daughter, raised in comparative luxury. The bright, attractive and wily Elizabeth overcame considerable family resistance to marry the man she loved in 1843.

The prominence of Elizabeth’s family is seen in her brother Montgomery serving as President Abraham Lincoln’s Postmaster General, and brother Frank as a member of the Missouri house and senate, and a brigadier general during the Civil War.

Although Phillips Lee was the grandson of Richard Henry Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, he had a difficult childhood when his mother died and his father had a nervous breakdown. Not unlike his cousin Robert, who attended the West Point Military Academy after his family fell on hard times, Samuel joined the navy at a young age.

Marriage to a navy officer meant long separations for “Lizzie” and Samuel. In the late 1840s, for example, she joined him in Lewes, Del., for the summer months while he was on Coast Survey duty.

Their marriage was similar to that of Delawarean Admiral Samuel Francis DuPont and his wife, Sophie Madeline. She remained at Louviers, their home in Wilmington, while DuPont sailed the oceans.

Initially, Elizabeth and Samuel lived with her parents at Blair House, their home on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., (now the President’s Guest House), and 14 years went by before Elizabeth became pregnant and Francis Preston Blair Lee was born in 1857.

When the war between the states erupted in 1861, Phillips Lee was in command of the ship the Vandalia, a sloop of war on its way to join the East India squadron. When he learned of South Carolina’s secession from the Union, he did not hesitate to direct his ship back home.

Robert E. Lee made a traumatic decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army to defend Virginia and join the Confederacy, while Samuel, also Virginia-born, maintained his allegiance to the Union and took part, along with Admiral David Farragut, in the capture of New Orleans in 1862.

The war caused renewed separation for Elizabeth and Samuel after he took command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron for the next two years. Nonetheless, as Virginia Jeans Laas points out in “‘A Good Wife, the Best Friend in the World’: The Marriage of Elizabeth Blair and S. Phillips Lee” (Bleser and Gordon, “Intimate Strategies of the Civil War”), she remained steadfast and was her impulsive husband’s closest advisor.

It was Lizzie who “smoothed his sharp edges” whenever Samuel allowed his high-strung sensitivities to get out of hand. Although normally quiet and demure, she reached deep for her inherited political astuteness and was tough as nails when necessary.

Elizabeth had been in the Washington maelstrom since childhood, when she copied documents for Andrew Jackson and helped her father and brothers in their political endeavors. She was adept at pulling strings with those in power to enhance her husband’s career as a naval officer.

During the war, Elizabeth assuaged her loneliness by raising their son Blair and serving as director of the Washington City Orphan Asylum. She was active in many activities, including overseeing construction of a new building.

After the Civil War, Samuel spent more time at home, and Elizabeth and son Blair enjoyed closer ties with him. Promotion to the rank of admiral in 1870, however, meant going out to sea once more.

Later in life, Lizzie and Samuel inherited the Blair property on Pennsylvania Avenue and the Silver Spring farm. In the end, she had lived a life of her own choosing, married to a man she loved, while retaining close connection to the Blair family.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” and “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June-July 1863.” Both books are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Cardsmart in Milford, and on Amazon.com. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.

 

By Tom Ryan

Special to the Coastal Point